Health Canada said Friday it would shut down its two-year-old COVID Alert contact-tracing app after changes to testing rules in many provinces rendered it useless to many Canadians.
The Globe and Mail first reported the federal government’s plans earlier this week. The app had only been downloaded by 6.9 million people by the time the federal government stopped publishing usage numbers last February.
In a press release Friday morning, Health Canada said the app would be decommissioned immediately and users can delete the app from their devices.
Advocates for careful government technology policy have spent recent months agitating Ottawa both in public and in private to shut the app down. Brenda McPhail, who oversees the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy and technology practice, had previously been on Ottawa’s group of advisers to oversee the app, and sent officials a letter in early May urging them to decommission it.
“Good stewardship of public technology and responsible innovation require government to manage and maintain the app for the entire duration of the project, including winding down the app and deleting the data associated with it, now that it no longer serves its stated purpose,” Dr. McPhail wrote, according to a copy of the letter she shared with The Globe and Mail.
COVID Alert relied on Canadians who received positive infection notifications from PCR tests to receive one-time codes from health authorities and voluntarily upload them into the app. It was then supposed to notify any other users that had been near the infected person for more than 15 minutes.
But British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and Nunavut opted against using the app, while Canadians only uploaded 57,704 codes by February, despite the country facing more than three million infections by then. That number is now closer to four million.
Interest in the app collapsed further in light of the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 late last year. The swarm of infections prompted many health authorities to stop relying on government-backed PCR testing and begin to mass-distribute rapid antigen. Results from those at-home tests are both less accurate than PCR tests and difficult, if not impossible, for health authorities to collect.
Ottawa had always planned to decommission the app when the pandemic ceased, but the rise of new variants and stagnating vaccination rates have prompted governments the world over to shift from trying to end the pandemic to learning to live with it safely.
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